What's with the Vinyl Hype?

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Let's not fool ourselves, Vinyl is great, but the idea that its sound quality is superior to that of uncompressed digital recordings is not entirely true. They sound different, and that's exactly the point.

On a theoretical level, there's just no reason it should be the case that vinyl sounds better. There are built-in problems with using vinyl as a data encoding mechanisms that have no CD equivalent. Vinyl is physically limited by the fact that records have to be capable of being played without skipping or causing distortion. That both limits the dynamic range, the difference between the loudest and softest note and the range of pitches or frequencies you can hear.

If notes get too low in pitch, that means less audio can fit in a given amount of vinyl. If notes are too high, the stylus has difficulty tracking them, causing distortion. So engineers mastering for vinyl often cut back on extreme high or low ends, using a variety of methods, all of which alter the music.

For example, one common cause of high pitches in recordings is "sibilance," or the hiss-y sound produced by pronouncing certain consonants, notably "s" or "z"s, in a quick, sharp way. This creates enough problems for engineers working in vinyl that they often have to "de-ess" recordings, either by making the pronunciation less sibilant through editing or by straight-up asking vocalists to pronounce lyrics differently.

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Since CDs rely on sampling an original analog signal being recorded, they do have some frequency limitations. While vinyl records, in theory, directly encode a smooth audio wave, CDs sample that audio wave at various points and then collate those samples. "No matter how high a sampling rate is," Wired's Eliot Van Buskirk once wrote, "it can never contain all of the data present in an analog groove."

That's true. CDs work by taking a bunch of samples from a source audio wave and stringing them together. But this criticism is misleading on two counts. For one thing, vinyl pressing is not error-free, and the analog groove of a given record is not a precise replication of the audio wave recorded in the master, not least due to extreme high and low frequency limitations. It's true that CDs can't exactly replicate the whole audio wave in a master, in every case, but neither can vinyl records. 

More importantly, the volume of sampling that CDs do should be enough to get a replica of the original recording that sounds identical to the human ear. You may think you can hear more than CDs are giving you, but you probably can't. Most studios don't have microphones that record above 20kHz, and it's very rare for speakers to play frequencies above that. Indeed, most playback systems feature low-pass filters, which specifically cut off anything above that marker. The fact of the matter is that CDs can create closer facsimiles than vinyl can.

But that's kind of an unfair comparison, given exactly that convenience differential. You can't fit thousands of tracks' worth of vinyl in your pocket and listen to it while jogging and as a DJ, it's obviously easier to carry less equipment. So what happens if you set all else equal, and have people compare digital and analog audio in a controlled setting?

Unfortunately, no one appears to have done a double blind listener test comparing vinyl to CDs, but there is a good study from Florida State's John Geringer and Patrick Dunnigan doing that with CDs and high-quality cassette recordings. It turns out, that the music majors had a significant preferences for digital. "Participants gave significantly higher ratings to the digital presentations in bass, treble, and overall quality," Geringer and Dunnigan write. The results were weaker on some points than others (recordings of string orchestras were a particularly close call) but in no case was the average rating of the analog version higher than the average rating of the digital one. The most analog-generous thing to be taken away from the study is that there are some types of music for which people have no preference. But there were several where people had a real, noticeable preference for digital.

Perhaps the best audio-based case for vinyl is actually precisely the fact that it does mess up the original recording. A lot of vinyl fans talk about the "warmth" of records, particularly of the low-end. But, as Pitchfork's Mark Richardson puts it, "the 'warmth' that many people associate with LPs can generally be described as a bass sound that is less accurate." The difficulty of accurately translating bass lines to vinyl without making grooves too big means that engineers have to do a lot of processing to get it to work, which changes the tone of the bass in a way that, apparently, many people find aesthetically pleasing. 

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"Warmth" also comes from flaws in record players. Speaker sound and the needle's height fluctuations can cause the record to vibrate, which the needle in turn picks up and translates into a "warmer" seeming sound.

Is it wrong to prefer that "warmer" sound? Of course not! It would be as preposterous to rule that out as a legitimate source of aesthetic appreciation. Audio distortion can be beautiful and there's nothing wrong with liking it. But there's also something to be said for listening to music as its creators meant it to be heard, and precisely because of their "warmth" vinyl recordings sound rather different from what artists hear in the studio.

The bottom line is, each format has its charms, and their overall differences in quality are often overwhelmed by differences in the quality of initial recording equipment, in mastering approaches, and in playback setup. So, buy and listen to what you like, a variety of both is always more welcome! 

 

MEOKO's choice for all your DJ equipment, either for vinyl or digital, go to:  

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Written by: Thalia Agroti